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Pray Tell: The Hocus Pocus of Happy Thoughts

Heads up: This may offend you because I’m hurting and I haven’t the composure for caution or the patience for sensitivity just now.

I’ve never understood prayer. Don’t know the point of it, how it’s accomplished, or what the word means exactly. I’m atheist, so it’s probably not important that I understand prayer; it’s rarely aimed at me or asked of me. And yet — it’s all around me.

For the past six months, a young man I adore hung in the ruthlessly unfair, utterly unexpected balance between life and death. He struggled. He suffered. He should have been driving to off-campus lunches and asking a date to homecoming, but instead he was tubed and tested, monitored and medicated. And trapped. He was trapped.

And so there was prayer — daily, concerted, multi-faith prayer on this boy’s behalf. Prayer from friends, family, kindhearted strangers, and entire congregations who’ve never met the kid. Enough prayer to stop a white rhinoceros in its tracks.

Yet the bastard rhino kept charging, so tell me: What good is your prayer? Did it mean he could send the crash cart home for the night? Or get his breathing tube removed? Did it mean this kind, smart, funny, strong boy could bound free from the Critical Care Unit and go on about his otherwise promising life?

No surprise: I have issues with the “faith” part of prayer — the pleading with an apparently capricious and cruel supreme being to make things right. As though He hadn’t conjured up the mess to begin with.

But surely the concept of prayer must be broader than that. Can “prayer” be any well wishes that you generate on someone else’s behalf? Can it be as simple as positive visualization, something you see when you close your eyes and dream big? I have faith in science. I know that energy can be transferred, and we’ve all seen it with our own eyes: When we’re kind to people, they are in turn kind to others, and so forth. If our positive behavior can have a real effect on the world, then perhaps our positive thoughts can, too. I’ve heard crazier things.

But in the face of death, meeting a family’s desperation with a promise to think happy thoughts feels inane, like trying to keep Tinker Bell alive by clapping loudly.

How does prayer differ from superstition — from crossing your fingers or spitting three times? Can we all agree it would be insulting if you told the mother of a child on life support, “I’ll knock on wood for you and your family”? “I’m so sorry. We’re all knocking on wood here.

What’s the difference between wishing something and willing it? Between hoping and praying? What’s the difference, honestly — if not self-importance? And if prayer does nothing more than make us feel less useless, then isn’t it worse than pointless? Isn’t it narcissistic and inappropriate?

And yet … goddamnit, I did it. I prayed for this boy. I prayed because okay, yes, I do regularly knock on wood and because I do feel achingly useless. I prayed because I could do nothing more, and it felt like a betrayal to do anything less.

My prayer was a primal scream in my car, begging him to fight just a little bit harder. My prayer was a quiet moment, meditating myself into his head and reminding him of the delightful, delicious things that await him when the hard part is over. My prayer was a wish — no, more a longing — to see him free of his tubes and troubles and inspiring people for the rest of his long, grin-filled, twinkly-eyed life as the superhero who survived the Year of Intolerable Shit.

I saw that for him when I closed my eyes. I saw it. I willed it. I prayed it.

But it didn’t work.

Nothing worked.

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